I’m working on the second draft of my memoir/fictionalised autobiography – keeping to a straight forward chronological structure, from earliest memories until now. At the same time, I’m doing a lot of thinking about a better structure.
One of the problems with my current linear approach is that the first twenty thousand words are in a child’s voice which I find slightly irritating. What other choices do I have?
The Art of Time in Fiction, by Joan Silber was recommended reading in the Margaret Atwood Masterclass. It’s a very short book, that requires slow, thoughtful reading. The following quotation immediately struck me as relevant.
“Aristotle in the Poetics claimed that superior plots tended to involve discovery – the bit of truth dredged from a character’s past that changes everything now. It is also the method of detective stories and spy novels – the plot has to let the protagonist dig around to find what’s gone before.”
I’d already had the vague idea that the story I was piecing together was similar to a mystery or a detective story, but I hadn’t really taken it any further. Now I’m wondering if it’s possible to use the idea of my current self as a detective to frame the story – so allowing me to begin with an adult voice.
I’m always really irritated with this idea that crime fiction has to have that whodunnit structure – many of my favourites are much more about why and there’s never any doubt about who. Perhaps there’s no need here either to stick religiously to simple chronology on the grounds that the reader should follow the same journey I did.
Another problem is that when considered in a linear fashion, the story feels unbalanced. There’s a lot of detail from when I was under ten and then again after the turning point of the first revelation, throughout my teens. Then again the story takes off again in my late twenties when I traced and met my mother. After that there were long stretches of time when I put it all away and pretended it was dealt with – until the last few years and months when it started to matter again. That’s a lot of transitions – “Fifteen years later…”
The same detective framing device would also enable me to be selective over which scenes to include and how to piece them together to make a meaningful pattern – not just chronologically, but thematically.
One option would be to use what Silber describes as Switchback Time. By this she means not just using flashbacks, or slipping into backstory – a technique we are very familiar with from film. Instead she defines switchback as a zigzagging back and forth among time frames – almost a kind of discursive, rambling folk-story telling method. She recommends some stories by Alice Munro as illustrative of the method – I’m going to dig out my Munro Collected Stories and see whether I think it could work. As a natural rambler, the idea has some appeal.
I’m also intrigued by the possibility of using time in circles or spirals to represent unfolding story, as discussed in the chapter on Fabulous Time. That might work to communicate the uncovering of missing pieces of my own history, revisiting and questioning memories, revising my understanding in the light of new evidence, new points of view. It could all go a bit Russian Doll, perhaps.
One thing is clear – I am not making the next draft any easier to write. Just as well I enjoy a challenge.
The Art of Time in Fiction, by Joan Silber. Recommended in Margaret Atwood’s Masterclass